The Object Lesson: When is a door not a door?

Writing with the door open, or closed? This is honestly something I’m still not sure about, and I’ve read numerous conflicting opinions on the subject. The closest thing I’ve come to an answer, at least for me, is “it depends.” I think it depends on length, on the level of personal involvement, and on how much is at stake.

There’s an element of being afraid of jinxing yourself that I think a lot of people would probably find familiar, and that comes in especially with longer pieces, because the longer a piece is, the more can go go wrong. There’s more time and there’s more variables, and it’s a lot harder to keep them all under control. I’m working on cowriting a novel at the moment–I’ve mentioned this, I think–and now that it’s very well established and a lot of it’s been dug out of the ground, so to speak, I feel a lot more comfortable talking about it. Before, when we were just starting, I was reluctant to even mention that it existed. Because when people know, there’s pressure, real or imagined. When there’s pressure, there’s fear, and when there’s fear… it’s never been my experience that scared writing is good writing.

But that still doesn’t entirely address the open/closed door issue, because talking about a project isn’t the same as sharing pieces of it. So: yea or nay? Again, it depends. Generally, I think it’s safer to err on the side of nay, because at least when I write, I find that it’s best done quickly and steadily without too many pauses to think too hard about it. You can think within a story–you have to, in order to get it done well–but thinking outside a story is when second-guessing comes in, and once you start doing that it’s all but over. Introducing a perspective outside of yours too soon can bring on the second-guessing. It can cause damage. So I talk about the novel, now, at least a little. But I’ve posted only one excerpt of it anywhere, and I most likely won’t be doing that again until it’s finished.

But this is a rule–and it really isn’t a rule, even for myself–that I break a lot when it comes to shorter pieces. A lot of that is excitement; when I’m really grooving on something, when the images are coming fast and vivid and the words are capturing them almost perfectly, it’s a rush, and it’s hard to wait until the piece is finished to share that rush with other people. At times, the positive comments from outside observers have been a lot of help as I push on toward the completion of a project. I probably would have finished it anyway–I’m all about finishing things these days–but God, it sure didn’t hurt.

But still, in general and when in doubt, I think it’s probably better to keep the door at least mostly closed. I think writing, in its early stages, is a deeply interior business. You’re turned inward, digging around in the goldmines that sit deep in the back of your head, and what you unearth probably shouldn’t be held out into the light until it feels good and ready. That doesn’t necessarily have to mean complete, mind you–but I don’t think it’s a bad guideline to adhere to most of the time.

The “light” is a bit of a difficult thing to define, too. At least for me, it’s sort of a double-layered entity. There’s the entire world–the people I submit to and potentially, by extension, everyone who might buy this book or read that magazine. And then there’s a kind of twilight plane, an intermediary step between me and everything else. This is what I like to think of as my editorial team–though I arguably pay only one of them in any substantial way for the invaluable work they do–a few people who I trust to be honest with me about whether or not something sucks, and to tell me how I can make it suck less if it does. I may share bits of what I’m working on, but the entire works themselves don’t see the light of day until they’ve been signed off on. Because while I believe writing should be deeply interior in its early stages, interiority lacks an element of perspective, and the stage that comes after it should be nothing but bright scrutiny by a smart, honest person.

So thanks to those people. And thanks to the people who think that the finished product is worth their attention. And if the little unfinished bits that squeeze through the crack in the door seem odd or fragmented or even just plain bad, I beg your patience. This is a strange trip, and I don’t always know where I’m headed, but I think the stops along the way are always worth the going.

One thought on “The Object Lesson: When is a door not a door?

  1. Meg says:

    I’ve always been more of a “door closed” person, with caveats… I wrote pretty much in a vacuum for the first 15 years or so. It was for me, it was always going to be for me, so I didn’t feel any need to share it. What I found, though, was that not letting *anyone* in caused the quality of the writing to stagnate. I still wrote like a fiend and enjoyed it, but there was little payoff in stretching myself… so when I did something different or unusual, and it was hard, I tended to quit and go back to what I knew.

    The turning point for me was realizing I needed an inner sanctum… less as cheerleaders and more as people who *would* push and *would* expect me to become better. It’s never more than two people at a time, because I’ve found that more than that starts to “push” the story places I’m not happy with.

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